Wednesday July 11, 2018


Croatia’s defender Sime Vrsaljko celebrates past England’s forward Marcus Rashford. Credit Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MOSCOW — Mario Mandzukic ran and ran and ran until he had almost nothing left.

And
then there was one more chance, early in the second period of extra
time. A ball nodded back in, a tiny gap behind the England defense, and
Mandzukic summoned whatever he had left and went for it. The ball fell,
Mandzukic beat his man to it and slammed it under Jordan Pickford.

Just
like that, Croatia was headed to its first World Cup final, staggering
off as 2-1 victors against a young and game England team that rode
destiny as far as it would take it but fell on step short of its goal.

It
will be Croatia that plays France on Sunday in the World Cup final in
Moscow. England will head to St. Petersburg for a rematch with Belgium
that neither team wants in the third-place game.

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Mandzukic’s
goal, after 109 grueling minutes, was Croatia’s second. It was set up
by a quick-thinking Ivan Perisic, who saw opportunity in a
half-clearance and won it for Mandzukic. Perisic had scored Croatia’s
first, another opportunistic goal in the 68th minute that caught out
England’s defense — younger, faster, but less experienced in big moments
— and negated a fifth-minute free kick by Kieran Trippier.

It was all going so well for England back then. The World Cup. The semifinal. Everything.

Trippier’s
goal, a wonderful free kick from just over 20 yards straight out front,
had been the perfect start for his team. It soothed any early nerves
and set a tone that this was all possible, that England might just reach
its first World Cup final since winning the tournament on home soil in
1966.

England
had built momentum since the group stage, defeating first Colombia and
then Sweden amid once-ironic chants of “Football’s coming home” — a
1990s parody of the country’s long trophy drought turned motivational
slogan.

But
the team’s inexperience in critical moments and major matches showed at
two crucial points: when Perisic slipped around Kyle Walker and
Trippier and caught them napping on the first goal, and when Mandzukic
reacted first to Perisic’s header on the second. Each time, a momentary
lapses, reminiscent of a last-minute equalizer England allowed against
Colombia in the round of 16, proved monumentally costly again. It is a
lesson England — the second-youngest team in the tournament — will take
into its suddenly brighter future.

There
were other highlights too: England’s dominance on set pieces in the
tournament proved a road map for how to exploit Harry Kane, who most
likely will win the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top scorer. And
England discovered a goalkeeper for the future in Jordan Pickford, 24,
who was magnificent again on Wednesday night, keeping his team even
several times when Croatia’s veteran lineup — three of its starters have
won the Champions League with their clubs — pushed the English onto the
back foot as the minutes ticked later and later.

So England is the only thing coming home, but not until it plays one more game — for third place against Belgium.

Instead
it will be Croatia that will face France — its first appearance in a
World Cup final 20 years after its first and only semifinal at France
1998.


Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scores their second goal.

“I
spoke to my mother the other day,” Perisic said. “She said she dreamed
France and Croatia would play in the final. Now her dream has become a
reality.”

For
an hour or more, it didn’t seem Croatia would have enough, England had
younger legs and faster legs and, thanks to Trippier, a lead. But
Croatia had Perisic, and Mandzukic, and a will to get something,
anything, to extend its own run here.

It
went the extra mile for sure; Croatia’s win was its third straight game
in extra time, and by the end it was beginning to look as if the team
might not have anything left if the match went to a penalty shootout.
But Perisic’s goal summoned whatever the starters had in reserve.

Croatia
Manager Zlatko Dalic didn’t make a single substitution in regulation
time, trusting his team to find a way. And Mandzukic, with an assist
from Perisic, finally did.

Run
into the ground, Mandzukic at last departed after the goal — replaced
by a defender to lock down the final 10 minutes or so. And when it was
over, the last bits of energy went into the celebrations. Domagoj Vida
sprinted and did a long knee slide in front of the fans in Croatia’s
end, and several teammates followed by diving headfirst into the grass
next to him.

Far upfield, Perisic lay on his back where he fell at the final whistle. He had gone the whole way; there was nothing left.

Except the final.

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